Skip to main content

Tactical Trout Spey: Forget Cast, Step, Repeat—Spey Fishing for Trout is All Strategy

New tackle has moved Spey techniques into the realm of trout fishing on streams and rivers of all sizes.

Tactical Trout Spey: Forget Cast, Step, Repeat—Spey Fishing for Trout is All Strategy
Spey-oriented strategies can help you pick apart trout holding areas like pocketwater, drop-offs, riffles, and riverbank structures. The key is knowing how and when to speed up or slow down your fly during critical parts of the swing. (Rick Kustich photo)

In recent years light, strong, and responsive graphite rods have dramatically advanced the art of Spey fishing. Compact two-handed rods less than 12 feet long with 2-, 3-, or 4-weight fly lines are a joy to cast and fish, and provide another effective option for covering your favorite trout waters. This new tackle—and a lot of experimentation—has moved Spey techniques from the world of salmon and steelhead into the realm of trout fishing on streams and rivers of all sizes.

Tactical Casting

The basic presentation in Spey fishing is to cast across the current and allow the fly to swing and swim across the stream to a point where it hangs in the current directly below you. The objective of Spey casting is to efficiently pick up the line from downstream, and place it across-stream again with only a limited length of line passing behind you. There is no traditional backcast such as you see in the traditional, symmetrical style of overhead casting.

Shorter heads reduce the learning curve for Spey casting in the modern era, since they provide more forgiveness in the timing and overall casting rhythm. Shorter heads also result in smaller D-loops, allowing you to cast while backed up against trees, brush, and other obstructions. Micro-heads matched with shorter single-handed Spey rods help create such a shallow D-loop that you can cast even when you’re impossibly crowded by a steep bank or overhanging trees.

Shooting line for distance is one of the most desirable characteristics of modern Spey casting. We all want to cast farther with less effort. To shoot, peel running line from the reel and pinch the line against the cork with a finger or two of your upper hand. You should have just the head of the fly line and a foot or two of running line outside the rod tip. Release the pinched line just as the accelerated forward stroke comes to a stop. This should propel the head forward and carry the running line out over the water.

An illustration of an overhead view of a fly angler swinging flies for trout.
Spey techniques and tackle can help you swing deep into trout-holding pocketwater. Using a Skagit line and a sinking-tip leader, cast past the pocket. As the fly swims into the pocket, mend upstream to help the fly sink and to hold the fly right in the soft spot where trout should be holding. (Joe Mahler illustration)

However, not all Spey casts need to be long to be effective. A tactical approach to trout often requires accuracy at short distances.

When Spey fishing for trout, stealth counts just as much as distance. Be sure to have a full range of Spey casts in your arsenal. Touch-and-go casts, such as the single Spey and snake roll, create minimal water disturbances. Waterborne anchor casts like the double Spey and C Spey create more disruption at the water’s surface, but are more effective for casting Skagit heads, sink tips, and weighted flies.

Strategic Presentation

One key to success in Spey fishing is to avoid getting stuck in a routine. Don’t just step and repeat all day long. Every stretch of water has its individual nuances. You have many tools available to you that impact both the depth and speed of your presentation. The most obvious way to adjust the depth of your fly is to change the sink rate of your sinking tip or sinking leader, or to use a fly with a different weight.

However, merely changing your casting angle is the simplest adjustment you can make while fishing, and you can make these changes from one spot to the next without re-rigging your terminal tackle.

Angling your cast straight across or slightly upstream allows the fly to sink deeper than a cast that angles downstream. Mending upstream can also remove line tension and allow the fly to sink deeper.




You can also control the fly speed by using the belly of the fly line. A downstream belly caused by the push of the current moves your fly faster than if the fly line tracks straight to the fly. You can eliminate this belly and slow the speed of your fly with an upstream mend or upstream line placement.

You can also use your rod angle to impact the speed of the fly. Pointing the rod across the current slows the swing speed, while leading the rod tip toward the near bank helps to speed the fly up.

The swing of the fly doesn’t have to be steady—in fact, sometimes it’s better to switch things up. When you’re fishing streamers and Buggers, adding some action to the fly during the swing can be very effective in drawing strikes. Pulling straight back on the rod using your elbow and shoulder and then pushing it forward creates a darting or pulsing action in the fly. A slight variation to this approach is to strip the fly with your line hand and then release the line back into the swing. How smoothly or sharply you make the stripping motion impacts the action of the fly. I prefer sharp, quick motions that mimic baitfish in distress.

Recommended


Illustration of an overhead view of a fly angler swinging flies for trout.
Spey techniques are extremely effective for fish lying along bankside structure because you can easily make repetitive casts of precisely the right distances. To speed up the fly, mend the line downstream so the belly of the line pulls the fly away like a fleeing baitfish. For a similar effect, simply lead the rod tip toward the near bank or retrieve the fly for more lifelike movement. To slow the fly, do just the opposite by mending upstream and pointing the rod across-stream. (Joe Mahler illustration)

Retrieving the fly during the swing is also effective when streamer fishing. I prefer a rapid stripping motion that makes the fly dart and move sideways. This retrieve method is also a very efficient approach for covering the water. I typically strip the fly back to a point where the head of the fly the line is just outside of the rod tip. This sets up my next cast.

When you’re swinging the fly with the line all the way out, don’t give up too quickly. Be sure to work the fly as it hangs in the current directly below you. A few short strips can entice a fish that has followed your fly on the swing.

While mimicking insect activity by swinging smaller wet flies such as soft-hackles, I rely on a slightly down-and-across casting angle. This angle, combined with pointing the rod out toward the opposite bank, reduces the broadside presentation of the fly and gives the impression of an insect struggling to rise in the current. Your rod movement and line control should be aimed at reducing your swing speed throughout presentations like this. You can also pull extra line from the reel and feed it into the drift by gently moving the rod tip back and forth. This reduces tension while holding the fly in a single current lane.

The Leisenring Lift method developed and popularized by Pennsylvania angler Jim Leisenring matches well with the improved line control you get with a trout-size Spey rod. Begin the Leisenring Lift by angling a cast upstream about 15 feet or more above a feeding trout, or the suspected position of a trout. As the fly sinks, follow the drift by pointing the rod in the direction of the fly. When the fly is close to the fish, stop the movement of the rod, so the flow of the current against the line and leader causes the fly to spring to life and rise toward the surface.

Swimming or waking a fly on the surface is also an exciting approach—especially for large trout. Caddisfly and stonefly hatches or egg-laying flights can bring trout to the surface with splashy rises, and a skating fly is often what the fish are looking for. Use a riffle hitch on smaller flies to help them remain on the surface.

To wake a fly, make your cast at a slightly downstream angle. The tension of the tippet pulling off to the side from the riffle hitch keeps the fly on the surface while cutting a visible V-wake. Hold your rod tip higher than you would when fishing a subsurface fly. This removes line from the surface and provides solid line control so you can maintain the proper fly speed. Finding the proper tension and speed for the water you’re fishing is the key to this presentation.

When there is not enough tension, the fly fails to form a V-wake at the surface. Too much tension forces it to plow under the water.

You can fool large trout with mouse patterns fished on the surface, both at night and during the day. Mousing is much like fishing any other skating fly, except that with large mouse flies you don’t need a riffling hitch.

When you are Spey fishing with a mouse, move the rod tip back and forth during the swing to create a realistic swimming motion. When a fish grabs the fly, set the hook with a strip-set, or simply allow the fish to hook itself. Trout often get hooked on their second or third attempt to grab a mouse fly. If you raise your rod tip to set the hook, you’ll often succeed only in pulling the fly from their field of vision. A strip-set gives you more direct hook-setting power, and more importantly allows the fly to continue its swimming trajectory if the fish fails to get hooked.

Spey casting can also be effective for dead-drifting both nymphs and dry flies. Spey casting offers a very efficient way to place the fly back upstream after you’ve completed a drift. The single Spey and snake roll are the most useful casts for a dead-drift approach. When you’re dead-drifting flies, your casting angle is around 45 degrees upstream. When the fly approaches 45 degrees downstream, you can simply lift the line and make a change-of-direction cast back upstream at 45 degrees.

When you are dead-drifting dry flies at the surface with a Spey rod, always use highly buoyant patterns, because you don’t have multiple false casts to dry the fly between presentations.

Fishing Specific Structure

The versatility of Spey rod and line designs opens multiple opportunities to cover more than traditional flowing runs and pools. With a strategic Spey approach, you can effectively fish just about any water type or structural element.

Pocketwater, for example, is something Spey anglers often overlook. Pockets created by boulders, rock formations, drop-offs, or submerged logs cushion the flow and create places for fish to hold while expending little energy. Pocketwater can also provide prime feeding lies for trout—food sources tend to be attracted to or washed into the pocket by the current.

Use a sinking tip and weighted fly to cut through the surface current of a pocket. First, direct your attention to the water in front of the obstruction creating the pocket, since the current moving around the object creates soft water on the upstream side.

The downstream side of the obstruction has the greater potential for holding more fish. Fishing pockets may require short casts. Make your first casts to swim the fly into and through the pocket while you’re positioned above the obstruction.

Fishing the fly through water with abrupt changes in flow and current like this requires careful attention to the fly line, as you may need to manipulate the line throughout the presentation. Make the cast to the far side or past the pocket, mending as necessary to swing the fly through. Use an upstream mend to eliminate any downstream belly that pulls the fly too fast. After mending the line, point the rod to the opposite bank to slow the swing of the fly and hold it in the pocket for an extended period.

Fishing the fly high in the water can be an effective approach for actively feeding trout during periods of insect activity, but for fish using the structure more for security, getting the fly down is the best approach.

Ledges and drop-offs can typically be identified by changes in water color. The deeper water usually looks darker. Simply casting to the far edge of the deeper water may not present the fly at the proper level. An effective approach to covering a ledge or drop-off is to make the cast slightly past the edge of the deeper water and then immediately raise the rod tip to pull the line back, creating enough slack for a weighted fly to fall along the ledge or drop-off. As the fly comes under tension it slowly pulls away from the structure, creating a very seductive imitation of fleeing prey.

One of my favorite locations for trout Spey fishing is along logjams, overhangs, troughs, and rock outcroppings. Using a sinking tip and slightly weighted fly, my presentation begins with an accurate cast that lands within inches of the structure. Two- or single-handed Spey movements give me a great ability to make casts of consistent length and quality and allow me to precisely cover the structure.

With a trout often lying in wait, a well-placed fly plays upon the fish’s predatory instinct. As the fly swings or is retrieved away from the structure, its vulnerability is often too much for an opportunistic trout to resist.

Trout often push into fast riffles to feed during both hatch and pre-hatch periods. In swift riffle water, control the swing speed of the fly by using frequent upstream mends to prevent the fly from moving too quickly.

Darker water in riffle areas can indicate streambed depressions that reduce the force of the current and create prime holding lies. Disturbances on the surface indicate rocks or small boulders, which also provide breaks in the main current. Approaching riffle water with a standard swing can result in hanging up on the high spots.

To be successful in such areas, pick apart the riffle with your senses and adjust the swing of the fly to make subtle adjustments to depth and speed. Changes to the casting angle, mending, and your rod angle all give you the depth control you need to fish uneven bottoms.

In short, it’s your ability to read the water, and your skill at using the long Spey rod to control your fly’s speed and depth that will take you to the next level and help you become a tactical fly fisher.

Flies

Most of the fly patterns I use for trout Spey streamer fishing incorporate marabou, rabbit, Arctic fox, or soft hackles to help them swim and move in the water. Since the flies swim under tension most of the time, the materials should flow in the water to create a lifelike, seductive appearance. Most of my trout Spey streamers are 3 to 4 inches long. Streamers that are too big and bulky are difficult to cast with a Spey rod. Woolly Buggers, Pine Squirrel Leeches, and Feather Changers are three of my favorites for Spey fishing.

A display of six streamer flies for swinging for trout.

My wet flies for trout Spey fishing are all quite simple. Most are dressed to represent one of the insect hatches typically encountered on the trout streams I frequent. I tie them sparsely on heavy-wire hooks to allow them to sink when there is little or no tension on the line. Most of the wets have ribbed, dubbed bodies and soft hackle collars such as hen or partridge to imitate legs or wings. The tails are most often hackle fibers. You can also use a trailing shuck of synthetic material such as Z-Lon to give the effect of an insect breaking free of its nymphal exoskeleton. You may give a wet fly the appearance of an adult insect in the surface film by incorporating mallard quill wings.

Trout Lines

Fly lines with short heads pair well with rods designed for trout Spey fishing. Two main styles of short heads have emerged. Scandi heads are designed with a long front taper capable of generating line speed and shooting a significant distance. That long front taper provides for stealthier presentations but prohibits fishing bulky flies or heavy sink tips. I generally use a tapered monofilament, fluorocarbon, or intermediate leader the approximate length of the rod with a Scandi-style head to fish wet or dry flies high in the water, or on the surface. A Scandi head can also handle light sinking leaders.

Skagit heads are generally shorter than Scandi heads, and have significant mass capable of handling sink tips, heavy sinking leaders, and weighted flies. Skagit-style lines are best used for fishing bulky streamers and other wind-resistant flies. Some manufacturers also offer hybrid lines for trout Spey fishing that attempt to combine the characteristics of Scandi and Skagit lines.

Most modern Spey lines are designed as heads that are attached to a coated, monofilament, or braided running line with a loop-to-loop connection. This makes it fast and easy to exchange heads. However, full lines with the head integrated into the running line with a smooth connection have their advantages with techniques that involve retrieving the head of the line inside the rod tip.

Spey casting isn’t limited to two hands. All Spey casts can also be performed with a single hand. Rods built for one-handed Spey fishing, combined with micro Scandi or Skagit heads, can be used to fish small rivers and creeks effectively. Almost any single-handed rod of 9 feet or longer when matched with the proper grain weight head can be used for the one-handed Spey approach.


Rick Kustich is a fly-fishing writer, instructor, and guide who began fly fishing 50 years ago on the lakes and streams of upstate New York. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications. He is author of Modern Spey Fishing (2023), Hunting Musky with a Fly (2017) and Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (2013) as well as four other titles including the best-selling Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead co-authored with his brother Jerry. He is featured in the film Spey Daze and is the Great Lakes editor for Swing the Fly magazine. Rick has also spent time as a fly-shop owner, travel host, and fly-fishing book publisher, and lives in western New York.

rickkustich.com | Instagram: @rickkustich

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie Craven's Mr. Jones Dry Fly

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie Craven's Mr. Jones Dry Fly

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
How-To/Techniques

How to Fight Trout Effectively and Get them in the Net Quickly

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
News

Patagonia Advocates for Dam Removal

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Destinations/Species

Science in the Thorofare

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
How-To/Techniques

How to Tie the Picky Eater Perdigon

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...

Fly Fishing the Plunge Pools of Yosemite Falls

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Gear

Scientific Anglers Launches Reimagined Tropical Saltwater Fly Lines

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Gear

Check Out Grundens' New Vector Wader!

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Gear

Fly Fishing the Plunge Pools of Yosemite Falls (trailer)

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Gear

Fly Fusion Trout Tour Sizzle Reel

Director of Design and Development for the Orvis Company Shawn Combs walks us through all the details of the incredible ...
Gear

Introducing Orvis's New 4th Generation Helios Fly Rod

Fly Fisherman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Fly Fisherman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Fly Fisherman stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Fly Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now